The Hansard Debate
The United Kingdom Parliament
28 Jan 2004 : Column 102WH
Mobile Phone Masts
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield) (Con): I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter in the Chamber. I thank the Leader of the House for agreeing that the sitting be suspended until 4 o’clock to enable those of us who wanted to be on the Floor of the House to hear the Hutton statement to do so.
I must declare a non-pecuniary interest in that I am the Conservative trustee of the Radiation Research Trust. I see the Labour trustee, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), in his seat. The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) represents the Liberal Democrats.
I am not a scientist and I come to these matters, like so many colleagues throughout the House, on the basis of constituency experience. I want to mention three key constituency experiences that have helped to inform my concern and are the reason for raising the matter today.
The first happened early in my time as Member of Parliament for Sutton Coldfield, when I became involved in the matter of a mast being sited adjacent to St. Nicholas school in Boldmere in my constituency. I hope that I came to that with a clean mind; I certainly came to it with no prejudice. I observed how the school, together with the governors and parents, sought in a dignified way to raise its concern about the siting of the mast. I also observed the response of Orange and the way in which it dealt with consultation, the school and me as the local Member of Parliament.
Mr. John Taylor (Solihull) (Con): As a matter of courtesy to the House, may I explain that I have another meeting to attend at 4.30 pm and that if I do not remain in the Chamber until the end of the debate I intend no discourtesy? I shall read Hansard diligently tomorrow.
My hon. Friend rightly opened the debate, on which I congratulate him, with a reference to his handsome constituency of Sutton Coldfield, which is largely residential, one of the finest towns in the midlands and a royal borough. As the representative of the neighbouring seat of Solihull, which is also largely residential and much like his constituency, will he acknowledge that many of my constituents have similar concerns? They will read this debate and the Minister’s reply with great interest.
Mr. Mitchell : I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he shares many of the concerns that I shall raise.
I observed the perfectly legitimate nervousness and concerns of the governors, heads and parents at the lack of information and the high-handed and arrogant way in which Orange behaved. I became very involved in the discussions and was amazed at how blatantly Orange merely paid lip service to them. I wrote to the chairman of Orange, but to this day I have not received a response. One of his underlings replied. I raised that experience with the then Minister with responsibility for planning, Lord Falconer, who was extremely sympathetic and I know raised my concerns at one of his meetings with leaders in the industry. That was my first experience of the way in which the health concerns of my constituents were dealt with by the industry.
The second event was a meeting last summer in my constituency at the Sutton Coldfield grammar school for girls, which is a fine school. A huge number of members of the public attended. Some had a professional involvement and interest in such matters and some came from much further afield than the west midlands. We had assembled a group of eminent experts to talk. I chaired that meeting and we heard from Professor Laurie Challis, the successor to Sir William Stewart as chairman of the mobile telecommunications and health research group, who made an interesting and distinguished contribution. We also heard from those who were concerned about the health aspects of mobile phone masts and those who were not. Alasdair Philips was also there—hon. Members will be aware that he runs an organisation called Powerwatch—and he made an impressive contribution. I sat and listened to the questions and the presentations for and against mobile phone masts made by that distinguished group of experts. The conclusion that I reached at the end of that lengthy meeting was that research is inadequate. Not enough research programmes are being commissioned by the Government and others, and much more needs to be done.
My third experience took place towards the end of last year. A mast was vandalised early in November in Wishaw in my constituency—not, I am advised, by members of what has become known as the Wishaw protest group against the mast, and not by my constituents. I know the people involved in the Wishaw group extremely well. Many of them have campaigned against the mast for a number of years.
I followed closely the events before and after the mast was vandalised. For instance, once it had collapsed, the group commissioned meetings with Crown Castle and T-Mobile. Two or three meetings have taken place, and I followed what happened at them. It is clear to me—I hope that I am an objective observer—that the meetings were a complete waste of time. The companies raised false hopes among my constituents, and although lip service was paid to making an effort to identify alternative sites, I am satisfied that it was merely lip service and not a serious intent.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): We are all grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important subject. There is huge concern about it in Orpington, just as there is in Sutton Coldfield. He mentioned alternative sites. From my experience in Orpington, I know that alternative sites that are often quite practicable are not considered seriously enough, particularly by the inspector and certainly not by the companies in question. I am glad to support my hon. Friend on that.
Mr. Mitchell : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. That will be the burden of my case for alternative sites.
The Wishaw group’s experiences repay careful study. Wishaw is a small hamlet in my constituency. Let me outline what has happened in recent years. Five ladies have developed breast cancer. There is one case of prostate cancer, one of bladder cancer and one of lung cancer, and there are three cases of pre-cancerous cervical cells. One person, aged 51, who has motor neurone disease, has also had a massive tumour removed from the top of his spine. Others have developed benign lumps, and there are also cases of electro-sensitivity. We also have three cases of severe skin rashes, and many villagers suffer with sleep problems, headaches, dizziness and problems with low immune systems.
Eighteen houses surround the mast, at a range of up to 500 m, and 77 per cent. of the hamlet has health-related illness, which is believed by those who live there to be the result of radiation from the mast. The outbreak of illness occurred in 2001, after seven years of exposure to the radiation emitted by the T-Mobile mast. Incidentally, there is non-scientific evidence in the village that, since the mast came down, many of those minor ailments have cleared up. Doctors will say that it could be as a result of the removal of the cause of anxiety, but it is an interesting observation.
As I said earlier, I am not a scientist, and I am not qualified to judge the medical responses. However, it seems to me that important questions need to be asked. I have considered them carefully. I hope that the Minister has forgiven me for making available to her a list of 18 questions. I shall now go through them. I hope that she will be able to answer them because it would take us a long way forward.
My first questions are on the guidelines of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection. Will the Minister concede that on its own, adoption of the ICNIRP exposure guidelines will not fully allow for current gaps in scientific knowledge, particularly the possibility of as yet unrecognised thermal or non-thermal adverse effects at lower levels of exposure? Secondly, the Stewart report stated at paragraph 5.59 that the biological effects can occur at energy levels too low to cause significant heating. According to paragraph 6.44:
“the possibility of harm from exposures insufficient to cause important heating of tissues cannot yet be ruled out with confidence.”
Given that the ICNIRP guidelines ensure only that exposure to radiation of the kind used in mobile telephony does not result in an adverse degree of body heating, do the Government believe that the measurements are an appropriate test of the potential risk to health?
Thirdly, will the Government recognise that using a heat-based guideline is insufficient if there are non-thermal effects from radiation arising from the use of mobile telephony? Fourthly, will the Minister explain why the allowed public exposure microwave radiation levels from masts in the UK, based on ICNIRP, are so much higher than those allowed elsewhere, such as in Salzburg, Italy, Switzerland, Russia, China, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg?
The next questions relate to Government guidelines on planning policy guidance 8. In a letter sent to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on 5 June, the chief planning officer of Birmingham city council said:
“I am writing as Chief Planning Officer of the largest local planning authority in the country in response to concerns being expressed to me regarding the lack of clarity in Government guidance on the health implications of telecommunication development.
As Chief Planning Officer, I find myself in a difficult position. Whilst Government guidance makes it clear that health issues can be a material consideration, PPG8 states that it is the Government policy ‘to facilitate the growth of telecommunications systems’ and that ‘the planning system is not the place for determining health safeguards. It remains central government’s responsibility to decide what measures are necessary to protect public health’.”
He went on to say:
“With respect this advice, allied with the inconclusive nature of the Stewart Report, provides little help to local planning authorities at the front line in dealing with the increasing number of telecommunication proposals being submitted. I believe that there is a pressing need for urgent further research into the health aspects of telecommunication development together with a review of the existing guidance and regulations on how such proposals should be considered.”
That is the opinion of the chief planning officer of the largest local authority in Britain, and I hope that his words will weigh heavily on the Minister and her colleagues.
Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this useful debate. In my constituency, Mrs. Jane Lee of “Otterton Against Masts” has campaigned successfully to stop Orange erecting a mast in a playing field. The application was also turned down by East Devon district council. Mrs. Lee, Mrs. Charlotte Sanderson and others have already raised about £8,000 locally. There is a High Court case at the beginning of March and Mrs. Lee has been told that if she loses she will be personally liable for £8,000. The system is weighted against the individuals making appeals. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be useful if the Minister could outline how, in the case of an appeal, an individual can campaign successfully and overturn decisions?
Mr. Mitchell : My hon. Friend makes a useful point that is much wider than the specific case in his constituency. He flagged up a specific problem that the Minister will have heard, and I will say more on that later.
Does the Minister agree with Mr. Justice Richards’ High Court judgment on 22 October 2003, in the case of Mrs. Jodie Phillips and Hutchinson 3G, that people’s health fears must be taken into account? Concerning the location of a mast and base station, he found that the question asked should not be, “Is this an acceptable location?”, but, “Is it the best location?”, and that “for the purpose of answering that question, one can and should look at whatever alternative possibilities there may be”.
Will the Minister urge her colleagues, especially those involved in planning, to ensure that PPG8 is amended to encourage operators to consider fully all viable alternative sites for a mast and base station so that the public are exposed to the lowest practical level of microwave radiation? Does the Minister agree that a requirement for operators to make available to the public a list of alternative locations for masts and base stations would further the Government’s aim of “providing for more discussions between operators, local authorities and members of the public”?
In the recent court case of Yasmin Skelt v. The First Secretary of State and Three Rivers District Council and Orange PCS Ltd. on 26 September 2003, it was conceded that the ICNIRP certificate must not be used as a bar to full and proper consideration of the public’s health concerns. If the ICNIRP certificate is to be no more than a document informing people that an installation will not exceed the emission levels set out by ICNIRP, and is not to be read as a block on full and appropriate consideration of public health concerns despite the assertion to the contrary in paragraph 30 of PPG8, will the Government issue planning authorities with new guidelines amending that paragraph?
Will the Minister concede that paragraph 30 of PPG8, which states:
“In the Government’s view, if a proposed mobile phone base station meets the ICNIRP guidelines for public exposure it should not be necessary for a local planning authority, in processing an application for planning permission or prior approval, to consider further the health aspects and concerns about them”, encourages planning inspectors to act unlawfully? I ask that in the light of the ruling, given by Mr. Justice Moses on 26 September 2003, that a Government planning inspector had acted unlawfully and had “failed to adequately consider the weight to be given to the health concerns” because he had followed that advice.
I have some more questions for the Minister on the subject of further research, which is at the heart of my case today. Will she rule out the possibility that increased incidences of sleeping disorders, headaches, seizures, infertility and unexplained clusters of human cancers in the vicinity of base stations can be attributed to the increase in background radiation due to the expansion of the mobile phone mast network?
Will the Minister state how much of the £7.4 million provided by the Government, in conjunction with industry, for a research programme on a number of important health-related issues identified in the Stewart report will go towards research into the possible effects on health as a result of exposure to base station emissions? Does she agree that, given the increasing level of public concern about possible adverse effects on health exposure to base station emissions, the low priority given to that area of research in the mobile telecommunications and health research programme is hugely inadequate? Given the increasing level of public concern, not least in Sutton Coldfield, about cancer clusters around mobile phone masts, does she agree that there should be a study into the distribution of cancers around mobile phone masts that have been in place for 10 years, using the cancer registry data and geographic information system software?
Recent research commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive and carried out by the highly respected professor, Anthony Swerdlow, reveals that interference with melatonin at night could be the cause of an increased risk of breast cancer among night workers. In the light of studies such as the Schwarzenburg study by Abelin and Altpeter, which have revealed that melatonin levels are significantly different after exposure to weak radiation, will the Minister admit the need for further research to ensure the future health of women living near masts?
Will the Department of Health consider setting up an online voluntary register for people who believe that they have been affected by mobile phone handsets and/or base station microwave radiation? That could be similar to the yellow card system for reporting the side effects of medical drugs. If properly implemented, it would help to provide a useful database of information to assist with the setting of future research priorities. Of course, I understand the need to screen out potential abusers of such a system.
My next two questions relate to Tetra, which I know is of considerable concern and interest to the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). On 10 July, in a House of Commons debate, the Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety told MPs that concern over the possible health effects of Tetra emissions arose from research in the 1970s and that it had since been “virtually impossible” to replicate those research findings. Given that research findings on this subject, listed in the Stewart report and the National Radiological Protection Board report on Tetra, show more successful than unsuccessful replications since 1980—the most recent successful replication being in 1999—how do the Government explain her claim?
Is the Minister aware that there have been four cases of motorneurone disease in the three-year period since the erection of a Dolphin Tetra mast in Drumcarrow, Fife, in Scotland, despite that disease being a rare condition that affects, on average, only one in 50,000 people? Drumcarrow has a population of around 800. Will the Minister have the high incidence of this life-threatening disease in Drumcarrow investigated in case it is connected with the installation of the Tetra mast, and will she consider whether any findings that result from it should impact on the countrywide roll-out of Tetra?
Does the Minister agree with the following quote taken from an article in the South Wales Evening Post on 11 December 2003? In it, a spokesman for Tetra Airwave mentioned that it was up to the Home Office to decide on the safety of the system, saying: “The safety of what we supply is nothing to do with us.”
Do the Government agree that technology providers have a specific responsibility for the safety of the technology they provide? Will the Minister clarify exactly who is responsible for setting precautionary guidance in these matters? I have given the Minister prior notice of those questions, and I am grateful to her and her officials for considering them.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My constituents have asked me how Airwave can say that safety is not its concern when the suppliers of drugs, such as thalidomide, found themselves responsible for the consequences of supplying them.
Mr. Mitchell : My hon. Friend makes a good legal point and, although I am neither a scientist nor a lawyer, it sounds right. Airwave’s attitude is not acceptable in providers of such equipment, as he said.
Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure that every MP has the same problem. Local newspapers, such as the Evening News in Norwich, have taken up the clarion call, and people like me are targeted by Orange. I expect that on returning home I will find a mast in my garden, because I have asked for mobile-free zones. It is said that people like mobile phones. What would they do if they went home and found a mast in their front garden?
Mr. Mitchell : My detailed response to the hon. Gentleman and my fellow trustee is best left until after the debate, but I take his point. I want to end my comments, so that other hon. Members can contribute. However, I want to emphasise two key points.
First, I listened to the experts speaking at the meeting in Sutton Coldfield, and I talked to the group in Wishaw, which is composed of highly intelligent, sophisticated people who have looked at the science behind the technology and who asked a series of highly pertinent questions, some of which I have repeated today. Having considered all that evidence, it seems to me that there is an overwhelming case for the Government to accept the need for more research to address the genuine health concerns felt by sensible, rational people.
The Minister will be aware of the Freiburger appeal, in which 2,000 medical professionals in Germany expressed their concern about illnesses that may be caused by the masts. That appeal was originally in German, but it has been translated into 15 languages. It may even be taken to the European Parliament, although much good that will do them. It shows that professional people are increasingly concerned. I have read what the 30 doctors in Crosby said about the matter, and I am sure that the Minister has, too. They said: “These are legitimate concerns.” They may be wrong, but we need a great deal of research into that and a much greater sense of effort on the part of the Government. The tiny budget that I mentioned earlier is insufficient. When one considers that the telecommunications industry has paid the Government something like £20 billion or more for their licenses, it is right that money should be spent on such research.
Secondly, the precautionary principle, which was advocated by Sir William Stewart when he was the Government’s senior adviser, is important. We must have proper transparency on alternative locations. Cost is important, but it is only part of the equation. I want the industry to be far more open with people about what the alternative locations are and why it made the decision it did. I want the precautionary principle to mean that, in most cases, it is accepted that the masts should not be placed too close to people’s homes, schools and hospitals. I want the information about where the masts are sited made widely available. I recently walked in the countryside not far from my constituency in the midlands and came across a mast that was cunningly disguised as a tree. We must be transparent about where the masts are placed.
I want a change to paragraph 40 of PPG8 to enable the councillors who have to make such decisions to take into account the fears of those whom they represent. At the moment, the process is imbalanced. We need to redress the imbalance in the system. It is too much in favour of phone companies and not enough in favour of local people. Decisions are made through their local councillors, who do not adequately reflect their concerns. The Department, the planners and those in the Government who are re-examining PPG8 would do well to heed the wise words of Emrys Jones, the chief planner of Birmingham city council.
Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair) : At the risk of being tiresome to those who know the drill in Westminster Hall, I remind hon. Members that it is customary to start the first of the three winding-up speeches 30 minutes before the debate concludes. Five hon. Members want to catch my eye, one of whom was a late arrival. Nevertheless, will all hon. Members bear in mind the time constraints when making their contributions and when accepting or responding to interventions?
Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on introducing the debate. I am pleased to see that the chairman of the all-party group on mobile communications is present. I apologise to the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), for having to leave the debate a few minutes early. I have a meeting with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman), at 4.30 pm. However, I am grateful for the opportunity to spend five minutes talking about my problems with Airwave, the main organisation behind Tetra, which, I always remind myself, stands for “Trust your enhanced trunk radio systems.”
I come to the debate with no alarmist views. In many respects, I have been a defender of the system. In 2000, the police approached me saying that they needed a new radio system. Having been out with them on many occasions, I knew that their existing system was defective and it seemed sensible for them to move towards a much more integrated state-of-the-art technology. From the outset I was supportive of Tetra, but the problem is that the way in which the system was put in place does the opposite to that recommended in the Stewart report, which is based on the precautionary principle. Throughout the report, the precautionary principle is central to its argument.
More inappropriate places could not have been chosen for the two major masts that have been erected in the Stroud constituency. The first was placed on top of Stroud police station. Given that the mast was a police communications system, it may be thought right for the police to be part of it. However, it is the biggest eyesore in my constituency. It is on a hill and it is a dreadful building. The problem is that the police station is a few hundred yards from a school. From the outset, I asked Airwave to examine alternative sites. It reached the conclusion that there were no alternative sites. I have not seen any documentation to that effect. When I suggested alternative sites, I just kept being told that they were unsuitable.
When the mast was put in place, it was agreed that its impact would be monitored. That was in 2001. To be fair, since I raised the matter in business questions, Airwave has sought a meeting with me. However, although I have asked on occasions, I have received no real evidence, one way or the other, about what is happening as a result of the mast. We must remember that the mast is not fully operational yet. It will be some months before it can do what it needs to be able to do for the police to use the system properly.
The Stroud saga was bad enough. However, we needed another mast in the south of my constituency, in the Dursley area. I thought that lessons would be learned from the problems in Stroud. There are a number of places where the mast could have been placed, but it was decided to put it slap bang in the middle of Dursley, on top of the old GPO building and right next to the Dursley tabernacle. The Rev. Simon Helme was inevitably worried and came to see me with Shirley Welsh, a member of his congregation. We agreed to go through the process of seeking clarification about why the mast had to be there and of trying to ensure that the radio waves were monitored.
I was unhappy from the outset. There has been a strong community campaign, which reached a crescendo before Christmas when one lady put metal curtains around her whole house in the belief that that was the only way in which she could deflect the radio waves. It is easy to see that as an emotional, over-the-top reaction. The Green party has been active in alleging links to leukaemia, cancer and so on. Things of that sort happen.
I had a meeting with the chief constable before Christmas, and we were under the impression that the Tetra mast had not been turned on, except on one occasion when it was tested during the course of the Stroud half marathon. On that occasion, there was a full-blown exercise so that it could be seen how the force on the ground monitored the half marathon. I went along with that in confidence, because we did not want the exercise to receive the full glare of publicity.
As I said, I checked with the chief constable and we were both under the impression that the mast was not operational. However, I have a problem because, on 6 January, I received a letter from the chief constable that said that the mast had been operational for some time. It had been used not in the locality, but on the motorway and for other purposes. I was telling people one thing, and then I had a completely different, and very honest, answer from the police, who were also under the impression that the mast was not operational.
On the basis that we are talking about the precautionary element, that process has left me naked in terms of how I approach constituents who have been making allegations and saying, “Well, it’s bad enough thinking that we have the mast there, but let’s have some clarity about monitoring and testing things out fully before the mast is turned on.” It has been turned on for months. That is not good enough. There is now a degree of alarm in the area, and scepticism about the authorities having any control over what they have agreed to. There were reservations in terms of the district council, but because of the needs linked to the mast, those reservations were overcome.
I would like some clarity from the Minister. We are considering the precautionary principle. We have to be open, transparent and honest with people about what is going on. That has not happened with the two masts that I am talking about. I will have another meeting with Airwave. I have to go to Airwave; it does not seem to be keen to come to me. However, if it thinks that the issue will go away, it is mistaken.
I use what happened in my constituency as an example. It is linked to the health issue, because people are worried about their health, and they have every reason to voice those opinions. The response that they have got, basically amounts to nothing. Airwave has refused to attend the meetings that they have held, and I have to say that the police have not been much better. Things must improve; otherwise, people will inevitably demand that the masts are taken down.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). Like him, I have many constituents who have experienced problems when there are attempts to place telecommunications masts in highly residential areas in which they are not wanted. We have faced an extraordinary situation over the past few years. There was a proposal to put a mast on top of a hospital in my constituency and another to put one in a school in my constituency. In the villages in my constituency and in Chelmsford, the main town, there have been constant battles as companies, particularly Orange, have sought to put masts in highly residential areas. Such attempts include the latest saga in Linnet drive, where Orange has made a planning application for the third or fourth time.
The people of West Chelmsford are fortunate, in that Chelmsford district council has had a proactive and positive attitude towards local people’s representations. Fortunately, in many cases, the council’s refusals of applications have been upheld on appeal. However, the trouble is that the companies come back again and again, slightly modifying the plans after listening to why the local authority refused permission. There is something flawed in the current planning regime. It is outdated and does not take into account the changes that have resulted from the greatly increased use of mobile phones, which has necessitated more masts.
The reasons for concern are not always to do with the aesthetics of the masts, although that is indeed sometimes the problem. The problem is the genuine fear of ill health as a result of the positioning of a mast in a highly residential area. The jury is out on that question. Many references have been made in this debate to the Stewart report. Notwithstanding that, the trouble is that there is not enough scientific evidence to prove the case one way or the other. For every Stewart report, there are other reports from around the world that give conflicting views. In the absence of a comprehensive and conclusive determination of the health risks, we should err on the side of caution. The system should be weighted in favour of those who do not want a mast in their residential area.
Dr. Gibson : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Burns : I will not, because we are on a strict time scale.
It is also wrong that many of the companies seem to have a high-handed attitude to their planning applications for masts. Orange has already been cited and the experience of my constituents is similar. Representation is usually made both to the local authority and to the company directly, but there is a sense of frustration in local communities that companies go through the motions of listening to people’s concerns, but then do nothing whatever to meet them. More should be done on that.
More powers should be given in the system to include all types of mast in the planning regime and, importantly, to give local people more powers to determine what happens in their communities. The Government have a significant role to play in that, and I would hope that the Department of Health could exert its influence on those Ministers with responsibility for planning matters, to try to further the debate. At the moment, we are perceived to have far too much of a top-down rather than a bottom-up system. I would like there to be more powers in the planning system to allow the genuine concerns, views and wishes of the people who will be most directly affected to influence the decision to erect a mast.
I would also like more consideration to be given to alternative sites to those in highly residential areas. More masts could be put near major trunk roads—thereby placing them out of sight, out of mind in the domestic dwelling context. Far more should be done to make different companies use the same mast, in order to minimise the number of masts required, so that there is one problem in the immediate area rather than two or three, although I accept that that already happens in certain cases.
My ultimate message is that more should be done, because there is argument and uncertainty about the scientific evidence. I welcome the fact that, as a result of the research recommended by the Stewart report, for which £7.4 million has been provided, the Government have widened the research to include base stations. That is a positive step forward. However, in the absence of conclusive evidence, we should err on the side of caution. My constituents in Linnet drive have had problem after problem with the siting of an Orange mast that has so far been refused. Such local people should have greater power and influence in the planning process so that they are genuinely empowered to determine what goes on in their neighbourhoods.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): I apologise for letting my mobile phone go off earlier. That was a tribute to the double standards that most of us stoutly maintain on this subject; we make use of mobile phones while deploring the possible spin-off effects of their technology.
I welcome the debate secured by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell). I have six controversial mast applications in my constituency, all of which have generated petitions and protests. The key phrase in the hon. Gentleman’s introductory statement was “lack of clarity”. The combination of a lack of clarity and frustration causes so many problems for residents, planners and members of planning committees. They simply do not know how to deal with the problem.
Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Even worse than a lack of clarity is the putting up of masts without planning consent, as has happened in Rogate and East Harting in my constituency. Subsequently, local people have to put pressure on district councils to try to get those masts removed. That is a wholly unacceptable way to deploy the technology.
Dr. Cable : Yes, I know. There is a wider issue about the weakness of third parties in planning appeals, but I will not pursue that rabbit down that particular hole. The uncertainty stems from two issues; the lack of clarity about the science, and planning guidance. On the science, Sir William Stewart did us a considerable disfavour. He considered the science and looked at the physics and the biology and concluded that there was no empirical evidence of any health impact. He considered the examples—the clusters of illnesses that have been cited—and made the valid point that the research was not epidemiological and did not stand up.
Having dismissed the scientific evidence, he could have said that there was no risk, as did the chief medical officer in relation to the MMR vaccine. Had he said that, we would have known where we stood, but he did not. He said that there must be a precautionary approach. He did not say a “precautionary principle”, which is an environment policy term, but that there had to be a precautionary approach. Most people interpret his words on a common-sense basis as meaning that it is better to be safe than sorry.
Sir William also said—this is important—that we have to be particularly careful with schools, because children have thin skull bones, so there may be extra cause for concern. In saying that, he stated that there was a problem. Clearly, people will interpret his words in a worried way. Local authorities can hardly be blamed when they respond with particular sensitivity to planning protests in respect of schools. In the review of the science that I know the Department has carried out, the scientists did not help us as to whether any clear conclusion has been reached about the new 3G masts, which many argue are more potent and therefore more dangerous.
The second point is the confusion generated by the planning process. As I understand it, PPG8 makes clear that local authorities have to judge applications purely on planning grounds—the aesthetics, or the visual impact—and are not allowed to consider health impact. However, in response to a debate that I initiated on 21 May 2002, the Minister’s predecessor said, repeating what has been said in other contexts:
“Our guidance is clear that health considerations and public concern can, in principle, be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission”—[Official Report, 21 May 2002; Vol. 386, c. 274.]
Therefore, councils have been told that health impacts are not relevant, but that public concerns about health are.
I have great difficulty in getting my head round this problem, and planners have difficulty in understanding it. With the best will in the world, members of planning committees of all parties cannot understand what is expected of them through the planning process. My own local council, a consensus of Liberal and Conservative members, has taken a stand on a particular case to test the issue. It has taken the case of a mast that beams directly into a school. The planning officer said “We have no grounds for turning it down. There is no planning problem. There are no visual amenity issues.” However, there has been a large petition from the school, which closed certain classrooms for fear of the health effect. The council has overridden the advice of officials, saying, “Here there is a demonstrable fear about health. Let’s test it out in a planning appeal.” I do not know what the outcome will be, but we need clarification.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Dr. Cable : I shall take just one more intervention.
Mr. Mitchell : I fear that the hon. Gentleman was not here when I made the point. In fact the situation is worse than that. In the High Court judgment in the case of Mrs. Jodie Phillips, Mr. Justice Richards said that people’s health must be taken into account. Therefore, there is a complete impasse in the law; we cannot get it right.
Dr. Cable : I was here throughout the hon. Gentleman’s speech, but the comment is helpful. I shall be interested to see whether the planning inspector who hears my local appeal is aware of that ruling and takes it into account.
We need to move on. I want to make a suggestion about the way in which hon. Members’ concerns for greater flexibility in siting masts can be taken into account. The Government could help to solve the problem by giving guidance along the following lines. They could say to local authorities, “We wish you to contribute to the roll-out of masts. That is a national obligation. Each local authority, depending on its population, density and topography, should, as it does with housing, construct a certain number of units. However, there is discretion within that as to where masts are sited.” If a local authority chose to have a moratorium on masts within 100 metres of a school, it can do so, provided that it compensates with additional masts somewhere else, leaving councils with discretion over where masts are sited.
If that were to happen, the industry’s objectives would be maintained and our constituents’ concerns substantially alleviated. I should be interested to know whether the Minister thinks that guidance to councils along those lines—which could then be used as a basis for dealing with planning appeals—would help to deal with the problem.
Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford) (Lab): I apologise for being late and for missing the beginning of the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on securing a debate on this subject, which causes enormous concern among our constituents. I am still a part-time practising general practitioner, so I see a number of people who raise with me health issues about mobile phones and, particularly, masts.
Mobile phones are an extremely important part of our society, and the majority of people have them, including quite small children. Therefore, people are using these phones, which are a useful technology. I would not want to do anything that made phones more difficult to use. People make their own choices about using mobile phones and decide how often to use them, I hope with common-sense guidance from the industry.
The problem is that people have that choice; they can choose not to have a phone, not to use the phone or to use it on a limited basis. However, they cannot choose whether a mobile phone mast is next door to them. A mast is switched on 24 hours a day; it cannot be removed from one’s presence. It emits micro-radiation the whole time. Our difficulty as parliamentarians in trying to guide people in this matter is the lack of conclusive science. There is a fair amount of science around, but none of it is conclusive.
Perhaps I may use the analogy of medical research. We can give a new drug to 10,000 people and it has no side effects at all. That does not prove that the drug is 100 per cent. safe. It proves that the drug is pretty safe and may be extremely safe, but the next person who takes the drug may get an idiosyncratic side effect from it that turns the science on its head. The scientists would have to say, “We were wrong. This drug isn’t 100 per cent. safe, because poor Mrs. Smith has just had an extremely unusual and nasty reaction to it.” We can never prove conclusive safety; we can prove only relative safety. It does not matter how much science we do. Unless we have new models of science, we can never totally reassure people.
The other problem is that it is said that the masts radiate energy. It is difficult for the public to separate the radiation that comes from mobile phone masts from the radiation that comes from nuclear materials—which they know for a fact are dangerous—or the radiation from X-rays, which are dangerous if used excessively. It is difficult for many people to grasp the fact.
The point is simple. It will be extremely difficult to give people 100 per cent. conclusive reassurance that the masts are safe, so we must take the proportionate approach. My approach with the mobile phone operators is to say that I am happy to have phone masts in my constituency provided that they are sited in a position that will have the minimum impact on people’s health. They are not put near schools or hospitals, nor outside people’s bedroom windows. They are put in fields further down the road, or alongside trunk roads.
The mobile phone companies, however, say that that is a more difficult solution. Yes, it might be; but what they usually mean by that is that the solution is more expensive. It is much cheaper to put a small mast on the top of a school than it is to put a more powerful mast covering a larger area near a motorway. It is technologically more difficult, and it is more expensive. We must give local people the right, through the planning mechanism, to make such judgments for themselves.
If putting up proper masts in sensible places costs more, we may have to bear the cost, but people may be prepared to pay that price. If it is more expensive to put masts in more sensitive or sensible areas, the mobile phone companies may have to tell people that their phones will be relatively more expensive. That at least can be debated and a judgment made. The difficulty at the moment is that local authorities do not have the power to be able to say to a company, “Thou shalt not put that mast on that hospital roof” or “Thou shalt not put that mast in the middle of that housing estate.” They do not have that right. The Government need to consider that carefully; I believe that people should have that right.
Although there is a huge difference between fear and fact, what really disturbs people is the fear. In the same way that that the fear of crime is more real to most people than the experience of crime, the fear of mobile phone masts is probably more real than the fact.
Dr. Gibson : Another feature of the debate is trust and confidence. As we found in the GM debate, once Monsanto made the move, it lost the argument. The way in which such companies behave does not give people trust and confidence, regardless of whether what they are being told is factually correct.
Dr. Stoate : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Many companies should take note of it.
In conclusion, the fear of mobile phone masts may significantly outweigh the facts. However, as politicians, we must represent our constituents; we must take note of people’s fear because that is what blights their lives. I urge the Government to look again at the planning mechanisms. We should allow people to use their own judgment and, in conjunction with the local council, ensure that mobile phone masts are put where they are safe and where people feel happy with them.
Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) for obtaining the debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) on speaking for less than six minutes.
This matter arose in my constituency because of a sudden flood of applications for Tetra masts early last year. Some of them were approved under delegated powers. One was rejected under those powers, but the developer, Airwave, said that it was an emergency matter; it was allowed to put it up as an emergency measure. That is the first power that we must withdraw from developers.
Fortunately, Rod Burman, a constituent, and Richard White of the Isle of Wight County Press organised a public meeting in Woodlands vale in Seaview. More than 250 were present on Mrs. Burman’s cream-coloured drawing-room carpet. They were told by the planning officer that they had to follow Government guidelines. I am pleased to say that there was a muffled explosion from two of those present at the meeting—I was one, and the local district judge was the other—who were rather better versed in the law than the planning officer. The consequence was that Westridge Estates withdrew permission for Airwave to put the mast up. Meanwhile, however, a mast had been erected on the Commodore cinema in Ryde. The problem was that the Phillips case guidance had not been followed—neither Airwave nor the local authority had looked for the best site; they just looked for any site, and permission had been given under delegated powers.
I am very pleased to say that John Ackroyd is now running an organisation called “No to Tetra”, and that followed from a public meeting that I held at the Methodist church hall in Garfield road in Ryde, because that particular mast is very close to as many as four schools: Ryde school, Five Ways nursery, Dover Park school and Greenmount School. The problem, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield pointed out, is that paragraph 98 of PPG8 suggests that planning authorities have to allow these things to go up, but there are doubts surrounding the legitimacy of the ICNIRP guidelines, and since the Government base their directives on those guidelines, the doubts need to be cleared up.
First, ICNIRP and the National Radiological Protection Board do not agree on what level of radioactive output is safe. For example, for one type of microwave system 900 W per square centimetre is allowed by ICNIRP, yet the NRPB allows 3,300. Secondly, a contradiction is built into PPG8. I mentioned paragraph 98, but paragraph 97 says that “health considerations and public concern can in principle be material considerations in determining applications for planning permission and prior approval”.
In addition, the Government have allocated funding for further investigations into the health-affecting Tetra mast, which has actually had the effect of heightening people’s concern. Does the Minister take account of people’s bad health as a result of uncertainty on the long-term effects of Tetra masts?
Thirdly, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield quoted, there has been the Skelt v. Three Bridges case, in which Mr. Justice Moses overturned the planning inspectors’ decision on appeal, and on 17 May 2002 the Court of Appeal stated that “a guidance circular issued by the Secretary of State needed to be kept in mind but was not direction, and also had to be HRA Convention compliant.”
The Government planning policy guidance pre-dates the Human Rights Act 1998, which raises two issues: first, the HRA, which applies to public authorities, says in section 6(1) that
“it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention Right”
and article 6 of the convention requires
“a fair and impartial hearing in public”.
Without focusing on the public airing of perceived health concerns, a fair, impartial hearing cannot take place, and yet planners believe that because of ICNIRP’s guidance and PPG8 they are not allowed to take account of these considerations.
My constituents are genuinely concerned. They write, for example:
“I live within about 200 metres of this mast”— the mast on the Commodore cinema— “well within the zone of greatest influence, and am now living in constant fear for the health of my five-year-old daughter, my 76-year-old mother and myself.”
“A Tetra base station was erected only 50 metres from our house and was soon making us feel ill. We were subjected to ongoing radiation from the mast 24 hours a day and suffered a variety of symptoms, mainly being headaches, deep nausea, inability to concentrate, poor memory and general feelings of dizziness and disorientation.”
Mr. V. Philpot of Monkton Street, Ryde, says:
“I live and work in Ryde (as does my partner who is heavily pregnant) . . . I am gravely concerned about the possible health effects of this mast.”
Mrs. J.C. Warwick writes:
“I am now extremely worried. I am a mum, I love my son who is only six years old. Since I became aware of the mast and its effects I have become extremely frightened for his health and well-being. I am now so frightened that we spend as much time as possible away from the flat . . . At night I cannot bear for my son to sleep in his bedroom with the mast just outside.”
I have seen photographs, and it is no further away than that wall is from you, Mr. Cook.
“As a result he sleeps with me in my room.”
What do we want done? First, we want the Government to make PPG8 HRA-compliant. Secondly, we want a proper system to receive evidence from the public and explain to them, if necessary, how they should keep that evidence so that proper scientific investigations can be undertaken into the consequence of these and other masts. Thirdly, we need a national register of all telecommunications apparatus of this kind. Some of it is concealed, for example in shopping centres. It does not necessarily look like a tree with sticky-out metal bits. Fourthly, we need clear information on public liability. Do the Government or the planning authority approving the development issue the guidelines, or is Airwave legally liable for constructing such devices?
Mrs. Patsy Calton (Cheadle) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on securing what is obviously an important debate, and one to which a huge amount of information has been brought. I hope that it carries some of the issues forward. Clearly, the debate has been initiated by health concerns, but a number of other issues, such as the planning regime, have been raised, and they need to be considered even more carefully. It is undoubtedly true that large numbers of the public are worried about the potential implications of masts erected near them.
In most of the cases of which I have particular knowledge, people are worried not only about possible health implications but visual amenity implications; often they are most concerned about that. They are worried about possible effects on their homes and about going out every day and seeing something that is often so incongruous with their surroundings.
There are two effects. One concerns health and the other is environmental, and we must take seriously both those concerns. However, I have said to people who have asked me about the issue that the evidence so far is inconclusive. There is no clear evidence of any directly harmful health effects caused by mobile phone masts. The science can be complicated to the non-scientist and there is much confusion, as mentioned by the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). That the word “radiation” can be confused with known hazardous forms of radiation is sufficient for people to feel that they are perhaps being exposed to death rays close to their homes. We cannot ignore that.
The hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) talked about the planning regime and the sense of helplessness that people feel when they are faced with the fact that masts under 15 m do not require the same planning controls as those over 15 m. Even when the telecommunications mast companies apply for masts over 15 m, there seem to be few ways forward for the public to make their presence felt and to have their genuine concerns about health and visual amenity brought to bear.
A few consultations are going on in this country—concerned not just with these issues—that leave people feeling that their views are being ignored. They feel that organisations go through the motions but do not necessarily genuinely engage with people or take notice of points made to them. My experience has been that only when several hundred people have brought their feelings to bear on mobile phone companies do those companies take notice of what people are saying and site the masts somewhere else. That tends to happen when large numbers of people come forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham made the point that the Stewart report asked for the precautionary approach. It would have been nice if as well as slightly muddying the water, the Stewart report had given clear-cut advice that would not have caused any confusion.
I hope that the precautionary approach is applied to schools and nurseries. However, it is difficult to see how governors of schools, who must be consulted when a mast is to be put close to their schools, can put pressure on the process. They can report and say what their views are, but notice will not necessarily be taken. It appears that the planning system only takes notice when concerns and fears about public health are raised, and then not on every occasion. There are concerns about the new third generation masts, although there is no real evidence of health risks. There have been some studies, but they have not been repeated.
The Liberal Democrats believe that a watching brief should be kept. It will never be possible to prove that those masts are safe. As it will never be possible to prove that they are safe, all of the evidence that is and becomes available must be closely monitored and carefully watched.
The Government should take some notice of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister’s review of permitted development rights, which was published in September. It is a publication of more than 300 pages, which, so far, has only been published on the website. It makes it clear that permitted development rights need to be looked at. I was somewhat reassured to hear that all that stands between the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and changes to the planning legislation on permitted development rights is further public consultation. I hope that that will take place in a timely fashion and will not be left until the next Parliament. It seems that a great deal of good work has been done that could be pursued to bring about the changes that would remove the sense of helplessness that people feel. People feel that they are not being listened to and that things go ahead without their having any real say.
I think that I have just about managed to get through all of the points that I wanted to make. We would like to see the precautionary approach taken seriously and for research to continue. Although it will never be possible to prove that mobile phone masts are absolutely safe, it will be possible to set peoples’ minds at rest that there is no substantiated evidence that they are being exposed to harm.
My own view, and that of others to whom I have spoken—[Interruption.] I apologise to the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) for stopping him, but I think that I am still within my time. My view is that the issues of visual amenity and health and safety concerns meet quite significantly in the middle.
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I will try to be brief, because I know that the Minister has 18 questions to get through. That will take a while, so I will try to rattle through my remarks.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on securing this debate. It is an important issue, and had I not been speaking from the Front Bench, I would have contributed nevertheless. The matter involves my constituents as much as anybody else up and down the country.
There have been several criticisms of various operators. I add my voice to that criticism; my experience of operators has not been happy and has been largely characterised by a degree of unwelcome arrogance, which is unhelpful.
We have had talk of clusters of cancers. I would counsel caution when dealing with clusters, as Professor Challis, who was involved with Wishaw, has said, because we will always get them—that is the nature of statistics. People will inevitably be concerned, particularly when there is a cluster of cancer. The debate is about reflecting those concerns and establishing what the Government will do to address them. Communication, as I am sure the Minister knows, is part of public health. Clearly, we need better communication because people are worried.
The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) voiced his concerns about shabby dealings with a company called Airwave. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) has also suffered from the high-handed attitude of operators. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) was a little more conciliatory, but he commented rather bravely on the Stewart report. Those of us who know Sir William Stewart would be very reluctant to criticise his report. It was a good report that struck a proper balance between the evidence at its time of writing and the recommendations that, given that the evidence was not great, were necessarily equivocal. The reference to schools and schoolchildren had something to do with fears about leukaemia and brain tumours and the sensitivity of the developing neuroendochrine system, which obviously applies to children.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) was also cautious about the Stewart report, feeling that it may have muddied the water and that clearer answers would have been preferred. Owing to the necessarily sketchy evidence—I suspect that we will come shortly to the subject of research funding to ensure that in future evidence is less sketchy—the recommendations were going to disappoint those who wanted clear-cut answers.
My view of health is rather more holistic than that of many people; health is to do with well-being. Regardless of whether one believes that radio frequency radiation—RF radiation—in the way that we are discussing it causes tumours, one has to accept that base stations have damaged people’s well-being. It is evidenced by our mailbags, by the concerns that people have, by the symptoms that they report and by their general unease.
When we have a loss of well-being on the scale that we clearly have from the masts, it becomes a public health matter and it is therefore to the Minister that we look for a remedy to those concerns. I am aware of the time, but I will be fascinated to hear what she plans to do—addressing not only the 18 questions, but the public health concerns that people have because of mobile phone masts.
In my constituency, we have concerns about mobile phone masts and mobile phone operators. West Wiltshire district council is doing a splendid job of representing the views of local people and using the existing guidance to address their concerns. It is not easy because, as hon. Members have mentioned, the scales seem to be weighted in favour of the operators. Given the precautionary approach recommended by Sir William Stewart, that seems odd. I fully accept that in the Government’s amended guidance—PPG8—they attempted to incorporate some of his recommendations. However, most people feel that they did not go far enough.
On a slightly more philosophical note, we must be careful about the science. As I am sure the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) will admit, scientists and scientific inquiry are fallible. One cannot simply interpret evidence directly into public policy; the alchemy is far subtler than that. Most of our constituents have sound good sense, and often it confounds the scientific evidence and is rewarded in the fullness of time by being shown to be spot on.
The Stewart report found no evidence for harm, but that does not mean to say that no harm was done or can be done. Very often it means that the research has not been done, and the matter has not been sufficiently investigated. That was probably the burden of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield in arguing for further research. We would all support that.
The Stewart report drew an analogy with exposure from handsets. That is problematic because, as the hon. Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) mentioned, handsets are associated with acute, short-term, short, sharp exposures. Base stations are not; the exposure is constant and affects the whole body. Therefore, one cannot compare one with the other. In considering exposures, one cannot just look at the dose. It is necessary to consider how that dose is received and for how long it is received.
Some research has been done on nematodes—little worms—in Petri dishes. They respond in a certain way when they are exposed to RF. Some have said that that is evidence that RF causes problems to biological entities. No one can interpolate that directly to the case of human beings, let alone interpolate it to the issue of health. That takes several leaps of logic. Nevertheless, those responses happen; they can be observed and quantified, and that means that they have to be taken seriously. Again, that points towards further research.
This really is a quintessential public health issue. The Minister and her predecessors have dealt with a whole raft of public health matters for many years. It has not been a very happy scene. I am sure that she would be the first to admit that we have had problems with TB, sexually transmitted diseases and other matters. We have an opportunity to grip the issue, and I hope that the Minister will. In particular, I hope that she will answer the 18 questions that have been put to her. With that in mind, I shall wrap up a little earlier, and give her the opportunity to address those questions.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell) on securing the debate, which has been well attended. I completely understand how important an issue this is because of my constituency experience.
Obviously, the matter attracts a great deal of attention from MPs, the public and the media. All hon. Members have illustrated particular difficulties faced at constituency level. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) talked about the difficulty he had with a particular company. My hon. Friends the Members for Dartford (Dr. Stoate) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) talked about problems of perception, an issue that permeated the debate; perception versus some of the scientific evidence.
The hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) referred to the importance of people’s well-being in these considerations and how planning mechanisms fit into that. The hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) explained how he had been pursuing the matter on behalf of constituents with some vigour and raised issues that I shall try to address later. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) talked about the problems of his constituents, and the graphic descriptions of the public meetings attended by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) showed the strength of feeling in his constituency.
The hon. Member for Cheadle (Mrs. Calton) talked about the responsiveness or otherwise of mobile phone companies. I hope to address some of those issues later because they are similar to those raised by the hon. Member for Westbury on the attitude of operators and how we can deal with them. We are addressing real problems caused by the fact that more people want to use mobile phone technology. In the UK we are in the forefront of that technology, but how does that fit in with people’s fears and health concerns?
I am sure that Members will have seen the recent report from the National Radiological Protection Board’s advisory group on non-ionising radiation—AGNIR—on health effects from radio frequency electromagnetic fields. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Miss Johnson) wrote to hon. Members with an update on our initiatives on that, but this debate is an opportunity to address more of the issues and answer some of the specific queries that have been raised.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield set out 18 questions in all, and I shall answer as many as I can. I shall concentrate on the health and research issues that have been raised, as many of the other issues are for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I want refer to a few of them in the context of how they have been raised today, but if I cannot, I will ensure that the ODPM is made aware of the points that were made.
Many Members referred to the Stewart report from May 2000. Its conclusions remain central to Government advice, which is that the balance of evidence to date suggests that exposures to mobile phone radiation below national guidelines do not cause adverse health effects to the general population. It also indicates there is no general risk to the health of people living near base stations on the basis that exposures are expected to be small fractions of guidelines. However, there can be indirect effects on their well-being in some cases. As many hon. Members have said, a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phone technologies should be adopted until much more detailed and scientifically robust information on health effects becomes available.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked about the adoption of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection guidelines incorporated into the 1999 European Council recommendation. The ICNIRP and UK national guidelines are based on the comprehensive assessment of current scientific knowledge, including the possibility of harm caused by effects other than heating. The guidelines are kept under review, and a recent report by the independent advisory group on non-ionising radiation, which I mentioned earlier, examined the evidence for biological effects and concluded:
“The weight of evidence now available does not suggest that there are adverse health effects from exposures to radiofrequency fields below guideline levels.”
The Government acknowledge that there are uncertainties in the science, and having accepted the precautionary approach recommended by Stewart, we set up a research programme in conjunction with the industry. It has a £7.4 million budget to investigate a number of important health-related issues. The research is mainly concerned with users of mobile phone handsets, as the mobile phone user receives the greatest exposure to mobile phone radio frequencies, but all the research is relevant to investigating possible health effects from exposure to base stations.
More recently, the programme has been able to extend its range of studies to accommodate concerns about exposures from base stations as robust scientific protocols have become available. Two projects are considering emissions from base stations in particular. One is a study using volunteers to investigate whether base stations can be shown to cause symptoms in the short term, while the other is examining the incidence of early childhood cancer in relation to base station exposure.
The mobile telecommunications and health research—MTHR—programme is possibly unique in supporting two projects on base stations alone, and when other UK-based research is taken into consideration, such as the Home Office research programme on terrestrial trunked radio—Tetra—we see that the UK has one of the largest research efforts in the world.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Will the Minister give way?
Ms Winterton : I cannot. I am sorry, but I have to gallop through these questions.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked specifically about some aspects of the research programme. First, he asked whether a number of different symptoms could be attributed to the mobile phone mast network. Science cannot rule out the possibility of effects such as sleep disorders and headaches occurring, but such effects can have many causes and can predate the installation of base stations. There is no clear scientific evidence that such effects are caused by exposure to radio frequency fields from base stations or that they have increased in recent years. The research programmes that we support are investigating a range of disorders such as those that the hon. Gentleman mentioned.
I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s queries on the proportion of the programme being spent on base station research, but I remind hon. Members that base station emissions are low intensity compared with mobile phone emissions.
The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Westbury asked whether a study of cancer clusters around mobile phone masts should be undertaken. Research funding decisions by the programme management committee are clearly based on sound scientific principles. I understand that, in the absence of any clear indication of people’s exposure, there would be little scientific merit in such a study; mere proximity is not likely to be a good measure of exposure.
Another question posed by the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield concerned melatonin and cancer. The melatonin issue is a complex one, as his questions implied. Research papers on this issue are currently being referred to the National Radiological Protection Board, which has asked its advisory group on non-ionising radiation to undertake a thorough investigation of melatonin effects and provide a report. The report is expected some time next year.
The hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield made a helpful suggestion about setting up a register of people who believe that they have been affected by mobile phone handset and/or base station microwave radiation. His suggestion is interesting, but it needs to be carefully managed to protect against abuse, as he suggests. The research committee is keen to encourage people to register with the researchers, who are funded by the mobile telecommunications and health research programme. Volunteers who feel that they are affected in this way are asked to contact the researchers directly through the MTHR website.
I hope that I can answer the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield’s questions on Tetra by quoting directly from the report published by the NRPB’s advisory group on non-ionising radiation in 2001. It concluded:
“Although areas of uncertainty remain about the biological effects of low level radio frequency radiation in general, including modulated signals, current evidence suggests that it is unlikely that the special features of the signals from TETRA mobile terminals and repeaters pose a hazard to health.”
That conclusion was reinforced in AGNIR’s recent report, issued two weeks ago.
Several questions have been asked about Government guidelines on planning for mobile phone base station masts. Responsibility for the guidelines lies with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but I want to make two brief points. Pre-application discussions should be carried out with relevant groups, including residents, and alternative sites should be looked at. Those are clear guidelines. I know that there have been concerns about that that I shall take back to Ministers in the ODPM, particularly on the issue of motorways.
This has been a comprehensive debate. I am sorry that I have not been able to answer all the questions that were raised, but I hope that I have been able to give some reassurance to hon. Members about the research that is being undertaken.
Mr. Frank Cook (in the Chair): We must now turn our attention to the issue of roads in the Honiton and Tiverton constituency